The Crawford Deal: did Blair sign up for war at Bush's Texas ranch in April 2002?

We know that arguments raged about the legality of the war right up to a crucial cabinet meeting on 17 March 2003, two days before the attack began. But now new evidence pieced together by the 'IoS' strongly backs the suspicion that the PM had already made the decision to strike a year earlier. By Raymond Whitaker

It was one of the most tense cabinet meetings Downing Street had seen in living memory. "We were on the brink of war," recalled Clare Short, who was there. The consequences would be dramatic, not only for those round the table, but for millions of Iraqis and hundreds of thousands of British and American troops.

It was one of the most tense cabinet meetings Downing Street had seen in living memory. "We were on the brink of war," recalled Clare Short, who was there. The consequences would be dramatic, not only for those round the table, but for millions of Iraqis and hundreds of thousands of British and American troops.

The date was 17 March 2003, only two days before the war to oust Saddam Hussein was launched. "The atmosphere was very fraught by then," Ms Short, then International Development Secretary, said last week. Experts in international law were saying the impending conflict was illegal, her officials were concerned, and the military was demanding a clear statement of the legal position.

The issue of the war's legality has erupted back into the public arena in the past week with the publication of a book, Lawless World, by Philippe Sands QC, an international lawyer in Cherie Blair's Matrix Chambers. According to his account, the Attorney General, Lord Gold- smith, had delivered a 13-page opinion on 7 March 2003 which said that to be sure of legal authority for the war, a UN Security Council resolution specifically backing force was needed. Later, at a meeting at Downing Street, he said his views had become "clearer", and it was that clarification that was presented to Ms Short and her colleagues.

How that change came about has been the subject of intense speculation, reviving the pressure on the Government to publish the full text of the Attorney General's advice. But the lingering questions over the war do not end there. Mr Sands and others also raise doubts about another great mystery surrounding the conflict: when did Tony Blair first sign up to President George Bush's crusade to oust Saddam Hussein?

Last September, highly embarrassing leaked documents showed that as early as March 2002, the Prime Minister's foreign policy adviser, Sir David Manning, was assuring Condoleezza Rice of Mr Blair's unbudgeable support for "regime change". Days later, Sir Christopher Meyer, then British ambassador to the US, sent a dispatch to Downing Street detailing how he repeated the commitment to Paul Wolfowitz, the US Deputy Defence Secretary. The ambassador added that Mr Blair would need a "cover" for any military action. "I then went through the need to wrongfoot Saddam on the inspectors and the UN Security Council resolutions."

Throughout this period, and into 2003, Mr Blair was insisting in public that war was not inevitable. In May 2002 he said Iraq would be "in a far better position" without Saddam, but added: "Does that mean that military action is imminent or about to happen? No. We've never said that." Introducing the notorious WMD dossier in the Commons on 24 September that year, he said: "Our case is simply this: not that we take military action come what may, but that the case for ensuring Iraqi disarmament, as the UN itself has stipulated, is overwhelming."

In the past week, however, it has not only emerged that Special Branch officers questioned opposition parties as part of an investigation into the leaks, but The Independent on Sunday has discovered further information indicating that when Mr Blair met Mr Bush at his Texas ranch on 7 and 8 April 2002, he committed Britain to an assault on Iraq. The clue, contained in an obscure row over the Government's refusal to answer an apparently straightforward parliamentary question, shows that both at the beginning and the end of the process which culminated in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the issue of legality was very much in the air.

As the Cabinet gathered on the eve of war, it was well known around Whitehall that the Foreign Office's legal advisers saw no authority for the conflict without a fresh UN resolution, and that Lord Goldsmith had apparently supported their view in his written opinion 10 days earlier. The scene should have been set for a ferocious debate, but that was not what happened, according to Ms Short.

Lord Goldsmith, who is not a cabinet member, came in and sat in the place previously occupied by Robin Cook, who had just resigned. If the Attorney General was aware of the symbolism, he gave no sign of it. A two-page document was circulated and Lord Goldsmith started to read it aloud, but was told there was no need.

Until that day, the absence of any public statement had allowed doubts about the legality of the war to multiply, but now Lord Goldsmith was saying there was no problem. "I said this was odd, coming so late," Ms Short recalled last week. "Everyone said, 'Oh Clare, be quiet.' No one would allow any discussion ... I was stunned and surprised, because of all the other information I had received."

But Ms Short went along with her colleagues and voted for war. "The Attorney General is the legal authority for Britain, for civil servants, the military and ministers," she said. "But now it looks to me that [the revised legal opinion] was stitched together, it wasn't properly done. Not only are there questions over how we went to war, but about the reliability of the Attorney General in the British constitution. Our constitutional arrangements are breaking down."

Reacting to last week's controversy, Lord Goldsmith has denied being "leaned on" by the Government to change his view, or that the two people he met at Downing Street, Baroness Morgan and Lord Falconer, were involved "in any way" with the document circulated to the Cabinet on 17 March, and issued the same day as a written parliamentary answer. Following reports that he told last year's Butler inquiry that Lady Morgan and Lord Falconer had set out his view, Lord Goldsmith asked for the record to be corrected to "I set out my view".

"As I have always made clear, I set out in the [parliamentary] answer my own genuinely held, independent view that military action was lawful under the existing Security Council resolutions," he said on Friday night. "The answer did not purport to be a summary of my confidential legal advice to Government."

Lord Goldsmith did not mention the insistent demands that his "confidential legal advice" should be published, to clear up the many questions about it. But the speed of his reaction to news reports, coupled with the near-unprecedented use of the Special Branch to question politicians and their aides, indicates an atmosphere close to panic in government circles that the whole issue of Iraq could be reopened just as an election campaign is about to begin.

That consideration seems to apply to the refusal to answer a simple question: when did it first seek legal advice on whether an invasion of Iraq would be lawful? The Liberal Democrats, who asked the question, stressed that they did not want to know what the advice was, simply the date it was requested, but the Foreign Office has rejected a ruling by the Parliamentary Ombudsman that it has no good reason to withhold the information.

Sir Michael Jay, permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, argued that the date on its own would be "misleading". It was already in the public domain that advice was first sought in the spring of 2002; "it was not his view that the public interest required the release of anything more specific beyond that", in the words of the Ombudsman, Ann Abraham.

To put the date in context, the FO said, it would have to release a confidential internal minute and a press release. Ms Abraham said there was no need to disclose the minute, but stated: "I find it difficult to understand what harm might be caused by the department, in releasing the date of this minute, saying that it had been written because statements made in a particular press release ... suggested to them that it might be sensible to obtain legal advice in respect of those statements."

Most FO press releases are anodyne announcements of am- bassadorial appointments and guests received by the Foreign Secretary. From March to May 2002, there are only two that stand out, both on 9 April, the day after Mr Blair left Mr Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas. Both concern armed incursions by Israeli forces into the Palestinian areas. In one, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, calls on Israel to abide by Security Council resolutions, saying: "Like every other country, Israel has a right to security, but the Israeli government must respect inter- national law ..." Britain's then ambassador to the UN, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, makes the same point even more forcefully, saying: "I think everybody understands that the political and moral authority of the United Nations is not to be cast aside lightly or to be trodden on lightly."

The potential hostage to fortune in those words is emphasised in another press statement the same day by Ben Bradshaw, then a Foreign Office minister, who condemns Saddam for exploiting the Israeli "invasion" of Palestinian areas while ignoring the suffering of his own people.

Did someone in the Foreign Office realise that in the light of these statements, it might be wise to seek legal advice if Britain proposed an invasion of Iraq? According to Philippe Sands, interdepartmental advice had already been circulated the month before, "stating that regime change of itself had no basis in international law".

On the eve of Mr Blair's visit to Texas, Downing Street dismissed suggestions that he was going for a "council of war". It might be embarrassing rather than misleading to admit that, days later, the Government was seeking to establish the legal justification for war - especially since, according to Robin Cook, Mr Blair told the Cabinet on his return from Crawford that "the time to debate the legal basis for our action should be when we take that action".

In the view of Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, the Government's refusal to give the date it sought legal advice "can be seen as a refusal to admit that the commitment to George Bush was made very much earlier than the Prime Minister has so far been willing to say". But on this point, as on so much else to do with the war in Iraq, the Government remains mute.

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